`There are horses running around on the streets of Dublin. It's an international joke. We've had Sky, ABC, National Geographic - media people from all over the world here." Jim Watkins is a vet who manages the horse pound in Saggart, the destination of unlicensed wandering horses in the South Dublin County Council area.
"The council used to get complaints from the public, about 30 calls a day, but it's less now. Horses can cause terrific disruption to traffic and to people's gardens."
Most of the animals he gets in the pound are "extremely well looked after" and owned in roughly equal numbers by settled people and travellers. "Mind you, we had a thoroughbred in last week, from Jobstown. It was skeletal. I'd say someone was keeping it in a back yard and just didn't realise it needed supplementary feeding in the winter. We sent it to intensive care in the DSPCA."
According to the DSPCA, there are about 3,000 horses in the Dublin city and county area existing on the side of the road, on vacant lots, or in back gardens. Most of these (about 2,000) are in the South Dublin County Council area. "Some are in very poor condition at this time of year," says the DSPCA's Maurice Byrne. "About once a month there is an accident where a horse is hit by a car. They are almost always put down. It is also extremely dangerous for the person in the car. The impact is like hitting a telegraph pole." In 1996, 120 horses died in Dublin, most put down by SPCA vets.
"Urban cowboys" were blamed for the accident on the Chapelizod by-pass in Dublin last November, involving a school bus. It was alleged that two youngsters rode bareback on ponies across the motorway, causing an articulated lorry to crash into the coach carrying 70 schoolboys. There were no fatalities, but more than 50 people were injured.
Jim Watkins can recall urban cowboy scenes of "a dozen gardai driving 15 horses up the Naas dual-carriageway from Tallaght" on a Saturday night, but he admits that since the 1996 Control of Horses Act came into effect last year, the number of horses roaming Dublin's streets has decreased.
Under the 1996 law, horses in designated control areas must be licensed and electronically tagged with a microchip. The conditions in which the horses are kept must satisfy a veterinary inspector from the relevant local authority, and a horse owner must be over 16 to qualify for a licence.
Wandering horses are impounded and cannot be retrieved unless these conditions are met. There is also a charge to the owner for board and transport. Dublin Corporation and Fingal council use a pound in west Cork, which means transport costs are particularly steep.
If a horse has been impounded three times in one year it is confiscated permanently. Impounded horses, if not retrieved by their owners, are given away to new rural owners who can prove they have suitable accommodation, or they are put down.
The implementation of the legislation has led to relief among members of the non-horse owning fraternity. "The horses were running mad," says a spokeswoman for the Cherry Orchard Community Association. "They were starving, and if you tried to get them out of your garden, they'd run at you. There used to be a lot of horse dirt. It was a health hazard. And terrible things used to happen to some of the horses. I remember seeing one that was tethered up, trying to get free, and he ripped his belly open." She is glad that a new equestrian centre in Cherry Orchard is planned for those youngsters who are keen on horses: "I know that some are not as likely to get up to mischief if they have a horse to look after."
But others are not so happy. "Twenty to 30 per cent of the kids in north Clondalkin love horses," says John Brophy, who is on the board of Clondalkin Partnership. "Now officialdom is threatening to take away what they love. We are not talking about a fad. These are the sons and grandsons of the carters who worked for Guinness and B & I. They know about horses."
Angela Boylan, chair of the Quarryvale Horse and Pony Club in Clondalkin, says: "We have permission to keep our horses on private property that is owned by builders who are going to use the land for development. We have had our horses there for 12 years. The council went in and took 10 of our horses during the night. The horses were tethered there, not bothering anybody. Some of the kids got their horses back, eventually, but one little fella was in tears, because he didn't have the money. It's a racket. You have to spend £25 on a licence, £25 on getting a microchip, £50 on transport, and £36 per day your horse is in the pound."
Her three daughters love horses ("I started one of them on horseback when she was eight months old") and her husband "thinks he's John Wayne reincarnated". She says the bye-laws "discriminate against the urban workingclass. The fact is that the common horse, which is what most of us have, does not need a stable and an acre of land. But you can't get your horse out of the pound unless you can show a vet that you have all these things that we can't provide." She is calling for the South Dublin County Council to provide some land for the Quarryvale Club to keep horses safely: "There are 143 football pitches in the South Dublin area. Not every child is into football. We'd just like one of them for our horses."
Philip Murphy, senior administrative officer with the Community and Parks Department of South Dublin Council, rejects her claims that horses were taken at night. The 200 horses impounded from the South Dublin area since November have been rehoused with rural owners, people "who could show us they have the right facilities to keep a horse. Horses are big animals. You can't keep them in a matchbox."
He says the legislation is there "to control horse ownership, not abolish it. Our priority is to take the horses off the motorways and out of the public places." He admits that, as yet, there have been only 11 applications for licences, and seven of these were "invalid". He notes that the council has advised Quarryvale to come up with a development plan along the lines of the Fettercairn Youth Horse Project in Tallaght.
"We presented our plan to South Dublin County Council and they allocated us seven acres," says John Phelan, founder and project manager of Fettercairn. The £200,000 project has attracted sponsorship from various sources, including the International League for the Protection of Horses, Spillers Horse Feed and the RDS.
"Nearly £90,000 has been pledged already," says Phelan. There will be stabling for 20 horses, an all-weather training area, a tack room, and a meetingroom "for educating the kids". Some of the stabling will be for locally owned horses. Other horses will be owned by the centre and made available to groups of children to learn about their care.
Phelan believes that all areas "should be given the chance to organise themselves like us", and points out that "looking after horses certainly does keep the kids occupied - they are mostly boys aged from 10 to 15". He adds: "It's a bit harsh to be taking horses off kids. It's really the dealers who are letting the horses roam wild."
Meanwhile, according to Cyril Meehan, principal officer in the environmental and cultural department of Dublin Corporation, about 200 horses have been impounded from the corporation's area in the last four months, which is, he estimates, "about half" its estimated total of problem horses. Some have been given to new owners; others have been put down. On a more positive note, Dublin Corporation has allocated 11.5 acres and the Taoiseach has committed £1.5 million towards a new "equine centre" in Cherry Orchard which will cost more than £2 million to build. Kevin Smith, president of the Racing Club of Ireland, is on the steering committee, which raised more than £12,000 last year for the project.
"There will be stabling for up to 100 horses, an arena and training facilities for learning about horse care and control, and skills such as saddlery," says Smith.
Although building work on the centre won't start until later this year, already two teenagers from the area are working towards passing the British Horse Society exams at Jenkinstown Stables in Kildare. Smith says the Racing Apprentice Centre in Kildare is interested in taking on jockeys. And in April another training scheme, entitled Horse Power, will be put in place with £146,000 from the EU.
"We have to start the training now rather than waiting until the centre is built," believes Smith. "The Control of Horses Act is an overly rigorous piece of legislation which is impounding horses by the day. Kids haven't got the money to get their horses out of the pound, especially if it's in Cork. What are they supposed to do? Steal the money? I wonder if there will be any horses left by the time our Cherry Orchard equine centre is built." He thinks that before centres such as Cherry Orchard are in place, the local authorities should help kids look after their horses: "Kids are having to hide their horses in garages so they aren't impounded. It's like that scene in Into The West when the horse is brought into the flat.
"The horse culture in this area is a vital part of its identity. In Cherry Orchard alone at least 100 kids own horses and another 100 take part in riding the horses and caring for them. All the studies show that kids with horses are significantly less likely to take drugs."
Meanwhile, Martin Collins scotches any lingering presumptions that most wandering horses in Dublin are owned by travellers: "I live in Finglas, where there are 125 traveller families, only five of which own horses." A member of the Irish Traveller Movement's subgroup on horses, Collins adds: "There is a problem with wandering horses, but most horse owners are responsible and do not mistreat their animals."
He explains that the new legislation is forcing travellers to move out of areas where the bye-laws are being implemented, to protect their horses from being impounded.
"It seems very stringent when travellers themselves are being dumped into unofficial sites all over the place. Those stables sound like four-star hotels compared with some of the sites where travellers are being forced to live."